Customer care and dieting: easy to do, difficult to sustain

Customer Service2Good customer service is not difficult. Yes, there are big things that can make our efforts more effective: the vision/mission thing; the tracking systems; the social media programmes. But customer care happens in the ordinary, everyday interactions between staff and customer. If we don’t get those right, all the systems in the world will make no difference at all.

Good customer service is not difficult, it’s relentless. It’s like a diet or a health plan; it has to be done every day. Anybody can do it. It’s not that we don’t understand or don’t have the resources. We just don’t have the stamina; we don’t believe in it enough; we don’t want it enough. That is why customer care, outstanding service, remarkable interactions with staff, don’t happen as often as they should.

We recently spent a day at a shopping centre north of Durban. We enjoyed some good and some excellent customer service in various outlets — friendly, helpful, glad-to-have-you-in-our-shop customer care.

Some employees ‘get’ that sort of thing. It comes naturally to them, whether the sun is shining or they have a week (or a customer) from hell. But for every customer to receive the same from every employee, come rain or shine, you have to model the behaviour you want every single day. Exceptional customer care has to be practiced until it becomes the default behaviour in your organisation (or your part of the business). Employees need to see it in action and be given the authority to put it into practice.

Like that easy-to-follow but difficult-to-stick-to diet, this is not something you can discuss once or twice, leaving the implementation to chance. This was rather negatively demonstrated in an elegant coffee shop we stopped in for lunch. It had a beautiful and enchanting interior — cute without being kitsch. Various handwritten signs suggested that they took customer care seriously. We were invited to kick back, relax and enjoy the company. Unfortunately the actual service fell short of the ideal.

The staff were not inviting, and their service was ordinary. Had that been all, we would have given them the benefit of the doubt and returned in a quieter season. But a nearby table ordered two iced coffees. I’m not sure what was wrong, but the waitress was called and the drinks were sent back. The manager, who seemed to spend most of her day ensconced behind the till at the far end of the shop, emerged from her hidey hole and wandered past. She stopped, listened to the conversation and walked on. She said nothing and expressed no interest or concern for these customers who had chosen to spend their money in her shop.

The second lot of iced coffee was still not right. This time the manager got involved, but there was still no apology and no concern expressed. She said, ‘Well, our iced coffee has only the best espresso in it.’

I’m sorry madam, what goes into your iced coffee is not important. All that matters is what your customers get out of it. In this case, nothing good at all. Like us, they are unlikely to return.

All the owner’s good intentions, expressed on the shop’s website, menu, and walls, have dissipated through lack of attention. I asked the manager if the owner was around. ‘No, she doesn’t come into the shop much — now that she has two little ones.’ That is unfortunate, because it shows. If she doesn’t get back in there soon and start living out the great ideas she once had, there will be no more customers to delight. The shop will fail and, sadly, she won’t even know why.

High ideals do not sustain themselves. They must be driven relentlessly, day by day. Slogans are no substitute for ongoing visual demonstrations. Talk to your staff, model (with your staff and your customers) the behaviour you want and empower employees to make critical customer-care decisions.

It is not rocket science. Anyone can do it, but so few do. If you get it right, your business will outshine the competition. They will wonder what secret recipe you have, what impossible-to-emulate formula you use, but you and your customers will know.

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

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